Thursday, May 19, 2011

A future predicted now confirmed: The dangers of info-picking & narrowcasting

Nine years ago, in 2002, I wrote a short article for an association newsletter titled, "An infinite number of audiences of one?"

In that article, I raised the question, "How can we talk about issues affecting us all if the message is infinitely parsed?"

My point was that as our Internet and other communication experiences become more customizable to only those messages we select to receive (info-picking), the less shared experience will exist. This then makes it far more difficult to reach a mass audience with a legitimate message that truly concerns nearly everyone. For example, issuing a warning when the sky truly is falling.

Writer Doug Gross attributes to Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, the chilling comment that "a squirrel running through your frontyard may be of more interest to you right now than people dying in Africa."

One result of this is increased isolation of individuals and micro-groups of people clustered around an esoteric shared  interest. This severely deters the cross-pollination of ideas and viewpoints. It shrinks culture and filters out differences.

In my 2002 article, I stated it this way, "As end users infinitely customize their experiences to meet their exclusive wants, and markets hone in on single customers, shared cultural experience -- that part of our lives that allows us to connect readily with others -- may be lost or severely diminished."

Doug Gross, writing on in a May 19, 2011 article titled, "What the Internet is hiding from you," describes how my predictions are now coming true. Gross writes:
Eli Pariser made his mark on the Internet as the executive director of MoveOn.Org, the liberal group that was perhaps the first to turn the Web into a tool for massive political action.

Now he's worried the Internet is becoming too polarized, politically and otherwise, because of tools used by some of the technology and social-media world's biggest players.

His new book, "The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You," details the ways Facebook, Google, Aol and numerous other online hubs quietly are personalizing the Internet for their users.

The stated goal is to make it easier for Web users to find the things online that they like. (And, of course, to make it easier for advertisers to hawk things to you that you're more likely to buy).

But the end result, Pariser says, is a silent, subtle bubble that isolates users from new discoveries and insights that may fall outside of their usual tastes and interests.
This "filtering" is evident in search results on Google and in social media such as Facebook.

He cites one example where, as Gross states, "I had friends Google BP when the oil spill was happening. These are two women who were quite similar in a lot of ways. One got a lot of results about the environmental consequences of what was happening and the spill. The other one just got investment information and nothing about the spill at all."

While Gross focuses on what's being done by the providers, increased selectivity is clearly being exercised by users who create filters that match their many biases keeping out most of the rest of the world.

What's the problem? Simple.

Isolation and cocooning around a few narrow ideas and experiences creates a shell-hardened worldview that preempts diversity, understanding, intellectual maturity, spiritual health, and more. It engenders fear and suspicion of what's "outside" or "other." The inbreeding of ideas and information gives birth to perverse results. It yields uber-hyper-localism that is void of global awareness and indifferent to macro-concerns.

As Gross writes, "Sometimes the unexpected, serendipitous articles or discoveries are some of the very best moments when you learn about some whole new process or way of thinking or topic. It's sad if we lose that just so a few companies can get more ad clicks."

My 2002 article was addressed to professional communicators working in a variety of organizations and businesses. I concluded with a caution that I believe is just as applicable today as then:
"The brave new world of communication ahead of us is fraught with promise and threat. The promise is bright, so bright that it may tend to blind us to the threats. As caring communicators, perhaps we need to look beyond the e-hype and step out from behind our own fears of technology and begin pointing out the potential potholes in the information superhighway."

"We need to embrace technology and gain as deep an understanding as possible about where it's going. We can't know everything, but we at least need an articulate awareness of what's happening! We need to ask some tough questions..."
Do you believe that filtering and hyper-customization of information is a good thing or a bad thing? Should it be left in the hands of those receiving the information? Or should it be done by the providers? Both? Neither?



  1. Good article, but maybe there is a deeper issue here. In the old days of actual paper, those of a more conservative political bent would read one magazine, and the more liberal, another. People naturally filter. They switch the channel, watch Fox instead of CNN, and ignore most of what comes their way.

    But in generations before that, speakers would come into town, and have a debate - with each talk lasting HOURS. So maybe the underlying issue isn't the filtering, which is a great service to us. Maybe it is the lack of other supporting actions.

    Or to put it another way, we gave up Rhedoric, we gave up thorough non-sound-bite analysis and debate, and it is leaving a big hole. The internet can filter all it wants to, if we had the other supporting structure of a people prone to honestly be curious of deeper thoughts and contrary opinions.

    So filtering isn't the problem in my view. The problem is the replacement of understanding (which takes time and thought) with quick searches and factoids.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Carl. However, it's not just about understanding. Before, there was the shared experience of the village crier. Even as print expanded, people still shared the same information. This held through the early TV years; there were only a few channels and "everyone" watch Lucy and similar programs, moving the village into the electronic age. Now, with the plethora of micro-choices, the village is gone.


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